The Greatest Privilege I’ve Had in Giving
As told by Vicki Johnson to a staff writer
It is often difficult to get persons with healthy ears and eyes to listen to and see the truths concerning God’s kingdom. Now I was faced with the challenge of teaching them to a young woman deaf and blind from birth!
MY HUSBAND and I live on the property adjacent to the Helen Keller National Center for the Deaf-Blind, located in Sands Point, Long Island, New York. As we watched the building nearing completion we wondered about people blind and deaf, some even from birth. Never to have seen the beauties of the earth, or to have heard its joyful sounds! The mere thought overwhelmed us; the imagining of life in such total darkness and silence was impossible for us! We know of Jehovah’s promise that the paradise earth under his Kingdom rule would restore sight and hearing to those blind and deaf, but how could we convey this hope to those who would soon be our neighbors? We prayed that a way to do this would open up for us.
In September 1977, the way was opened. Our congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses received a letter from Georgine Dilts of Seattle, Washington. She had been conducting a Bible study in Braille with 25-year-old Debbie Curry, a young woman blind and deaf from birth. Debbie was first approached by Dallas Talley, a blind Witness. He studied with her and took her to meetings, but eventually referred her to Georgine Dilts, who knew the sign language for the deaf. And now, Georgine informed us that Debbie was being sent to the Helen Keller Center next to our home. Our congregation was asked to assign someone to continue the Bible study with her. I was the one asked to do this! How could I? My world was filled with sights and sounds. I took seeing and hearing for granted. How could I relate to Debbie in her dark and silent world? How could I communicate with her? I didn’t know finger spelling—and even if I had known it she couldn’t see it!
When I met Debbie at the institute my fears were lessened, if not totally put to rest. I didn’t need to know finger spelling to speak to her. I talked normally, and she used her hand as her ears. As I spoke she rested her thumb on my lips and her fingers on my jaw and throat. By feeling the movements of my lips and jaw and the vibrations of my throat, she knew what I was saying! This is called the Tadoma method. The word is not yet in the dictionaries. It is formed by combining the first names of the deaf-blind brother and sister first trained in its use—Tad and Oma. Debbie spoke to me with her voice, though I had some difficulty at first in understanding everything she said. Her ability to speak vocally is amazing inasmuch as she has never heard any words spoken!
Her first question was, “When can I go to the Kingdom Hall?” That very week she accompanied me to one of the congregation’s book studies, and I arranged to conduct a home Bible study with her. She also started attending certain weekly meetings at the Kingdom Hall. The first is a school that trains us to preach, and the second helps us to organize the preaching work.
Steps Taken to Help Debbie
At first I took along publications in Braille for her to read during the meetings, but that was only temporary. I and another woman in the congregation took courses in both finger spelling and signing words, and in a few weeks we took turns interpreting the meetings for Debbie. She would hold our hand lightly in hers as we finger spelled or signed what was being said. She was happy to feel a part of all that was going on. Later on I had a student talk in the training school. Debbie wanted to take part in it. I planned my presentation so that she could say a few words in it, and this thrilled her immensely. She also comments at the congregation book study.
The Watchtower Society is aware of the needs of the handicapped. It has the books of the Bible in Braille, many of which have been loaned to Debbie. In its Braille department, the Society embosses many of its publications for blind readers. In Debbie’s personal Bible study we use the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. She has the book in Braille, reads each paragraph with its question aloud, and then gives the answer. The study articles in every other issue of the Watchtower magazine are published in Braille. This made Debbie eager to attend the Sunday meeting at the Kingdom Hall when this magazine is studied.
The Helen Keller Center where Debbie lives must give permission to do this. The Center is not opposed to Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it is very protective toward its clients. Jack, one of the volunteer workers, had been taking Debbie to the Catholic church on Sunday mornings. He was very kind to her, took her swimming, to restaurants, and to other places. Those at the Center felt that this was a good arrangement and were reluctant to change it. So the Center favored Debbie’s time being divided between us—the Kingdom Hall with me during the week, the Catholic church with Jack on Sunday.
However, Debbie’s continual request was to go to the Kingdom Hall on Sunday. Her social worker finally agreed that she could make this change if she would tell Jack of her wish to do so. This was difficult for her. She was fond of him. He had been very good to her. She also wanted him to learn about life in Jehovah’s earthly paradise.
She invited Jack to her personal Bible study. He is a staunch Catholic, but he could not say No to Debbie. So he found himself sitting in on what he thought would be something like a Ku Klux Klan meeting. At the Center they had discussed ‘these people who whisk Debbie off to several religious meetings a week,’ saying that ‘one meeting a week was extremely religious,’ so ‘these people must be strange indeed.’ Jack told us this, but added, “You’re very normal, hospitable people and you really care about Debbie.” He returned to the Center with the recommendation that Debbie be allowed to spend time with us whenever we wanted to have her. Her attendance at Sunday Watchtower studies began immediately.
“I Have No Problems”
One of the Watchtower lessons was about ‘throwing your burdens on Jehovah.’ Afterward I reviewed some of the points with Debbie.
“When we have problems,” I said, “we can always go to Jehovah God in prayer and talk to him about them. We should never be hesitant to go to him with any problems that come up in our lives.”
This young woman who has spent the 26 years of her life in total darkness and total silence responded, “I have no problems.” Compared to her, I am the one who has no problems!
On one occasion a slight problem did arise. I conduct a Bible study with Denise, a teen-age girl who also attends meetings at the Kingdom Hall. She was scheduled to give a student talk, and I was going over her notes with her. Debbie put her hand over the notes. I removed it, but she covered them again. The third time this happened I moved her hand away and held it briefly. Debbie turned her back on me. After finishing with Denise I turned to Debbie. She pulled an old letter from her grandmother out of her purse and handed it to me to read—I’d already read it for her several times. When I got to the part where her grandmother told her that she did not need to be baptized again because she had been baptized in the Bethany Pentecostal church when she was a little girl, Debbie took the letter from me. She was telling me something.
“Then you don’t want to be baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?” I asked.
“You said before that you did. Now you don’t?”
“When did you change your mind?” She didn’t answer.
“Do you want to be a Pentecostal or one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
“Do you still want to study the Bible with me?”
“Do you want me to pick you up Thursday to go to the Kingdom Hall?”
She hesitated, but finally said, “Yes.”
I realized what was the matter. She was jealous because I had spent time with Denise. She wanted to hurt me by rejecting the Witnesses. I let the matter drop, but brought it up at our next meeting. She didn’t want to talk about it.
“The last time we talked,” I said, “you didn’t want to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Did you mean that?”
“You were angry.”
“No!” She was adamant. She didn’t want me to think that she was angry.
“Yes,” I said, “you were angry. That’s understandable. You wanted my attention. But it was Denise’s turn. My giving attention to Denise doesn’t mean that I don’t love you. Do you understand that?”
She didn’t answer, and I continued:
“It’s like a mother who has more than one child. She loves all her children, but she gives attention to different ones at different times. The other day it was Denise’s time. This is your time. If you are going to be angry, be angry with me, but never be angry with Jehovah or his truth. I get angry sometimes. It’s a human weakness, and we try to overcome it.”
Debbie got the point. She has never shown jealousy since. I have learned firsthand what her grandmother in Washington State told me in a letter: “She is a very happy young lady as I’m sure you’ve discovered, and very rarely displays temper.” Debbie’s grandmother also provided some interesting information, as follows:
“The film ‘A Day with Debbie’ is in the library of Congress. This was taken as an educational film to help others who were handicapped. She was between 8 and 9 years old at the time. She has appeared on TV programs, at college classes and many other group programs. This was to instill in parents the fact that a handicapped child can and should have opportunities for an education and also have a part in community activities.”
The grandmother’s letter to me closes very graciously: “Again I want to thank you, your husband and your friends who have been so kind and loving to our Debbie.” I greatly appreciated her letter. She is concerned about Debbie’s welfare. When I started studying with Debbie her grandmother checked with the Center about this. The social worker assured her that it was good for Debbie, that Jehovah’s Witnesses are “a tightly knit group who really care for those they study with.”
Joys Shared with Debbie
Early in my relationship with Debbie I wanted to make her feel at ease with me. I said to her: “I want you to feel free with me. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions that you want to.” To my amusement and delight she responded immediately, “Can we go out for pizza?” She enjoys eating at restaurants, and if it isn’t pizza it’s hamburgers and French fries. She has asked me to take her swimming. She is cute in the way she makes her requests. Instead of coming right out and asking, she usually says, “What are you doing Saturday morning? In the afternoon? Saturday evening? Sunday afternoon?” She goes to some dances, has a vibrator on her arm that picks up the vibrations, and in this way she enjoys music.
Another joy we share is telling others about Jehovah’s kingdom. After studying the Bible a few months she wanted to join me in witnessing from door to door. I prepared a brief written message for her to present to the householder. It tells them that she doesn’t see or hear, but would like for them to consider this scripture—I then read the text and a discussion follows. Debbie knows the importance of sharing this knowledge with others and wants to do her part. After her first time going from door to door with me she said: “When can I have a Bible study with someone? I want to teach people the Bible.” Through Debbie and her social worker all those at the Helen Keller National Center know about the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When my husband and I took her to the Watchtower Society’s world headquarters in Brooklyn she was interested in touching things. Generally we had tried to get her to touch objects, thinking this would help her to learn about them. But, strangely, she is reluctant to do this. However, when touring the printing plant she wanted to touch everything—paper, cloth, flexible glue, machinery. Under careful supervision she even felt the vibrations of the big rotary printing presses as they turned out thousands of books or magazines.
Our greatest joy shared with Debbie came at the “Victorious Faith” International Convention held in July at Shea Stadium in New York. There, before 55,000 conventioners, Debbie, along with 486 others, symbolized her dedication to Jehovah God by water immersion! The event was televised on that evening’s newscast.
The Supreme Joy That Lies Ahead
Debbie eagerly looks forward to the time in Jehovah’s paradise earth when she will see and hear as other people do. Imagine her thrill when she first opens her eyes and sees mountains, forests, rushing rivers and surging oceans, flowers and birds and graceful animals, men and women—and herself! I hope that I am privileged to be there to see this, and to see her wonder and amazement as she hears the song of a mockingbird, the sound of the wind, the hum of insects, the roar of a waterfall, and human voices—including her own! We tend to take all of this for granted. Debbie Curry won’t. Do we fully appreciate our eyes and ears? Debbie Curry will.
At times it is taxing to work for hours with Debbie, but it’s worth all the effort when she says, “I prayed to Jehovah for strength last night,” or when she smiles and literally shivers with happiness over some little thing, or when she stops in the middle of her Bible study to hug me and say, “I love my Bible study.” Truly, in my 40 years as a Witness, this has been the greatest privilege I’ve had in giving!